394 The Rembrandt theft of a hundred years ago today

A centennial moment in Schwartz’s art-historical life. One hundred years ago today a Rembrandt self-portrait was stolen from the museum in Weimar. He is writing a book on the painting. A snippet from its fascinating story. Plus a complete lecture and q&a on the exhibition Rembrandt’s orient.

When this morning a hundred years ago, on Sunday the 10th of April 1921, the guards of the Weimar Museum opened the doors, they found a ravage in a gallery on the upper story and four paintings missing.

Der Kunstwanderer, issue of April 1921


Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Self-portrait, signed and dated Rembrandt f. 1643
Oil on canvas, 62.5 x 49.6 cm
Private collection
Bredius 35. Corpus IV, 3
Gerard ter Borch, Portrait of a young man
Oil on canvas, 35.5 x 26.7 cm
Weimar, Klassik Stiftung Weimar (G 101)
Constantijn Netscher (?), Prince Willem III van Nassau, c. 1670s or ’80s
Oil on canvas, 49 x 38 cm
Private collection: the stolen painting looked something like this
Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, A young boy or girl with a ribboned hat
Oil on canvas, 27.6 x 22.2 cm
Weimar, Klassik Stiftung Weimar (G 151)

This incident has captured my rapt attention because I am writing a book on the Rembrandt self-portrait that was stolen. The story of its fortunes from the time it first emerged in April 1823, which I find enthralling, takes up most of the book, but I cannot let the day of today go by without publishing a précis of the theft and its aftermath.

In the preceding months a professional gang had been committing robberies in Weimar collections and monuments, and the first reaction of the police was to assume that this too was their work. “Nonsense,” said the museum director, Wilhelm Köhler.

Professional scoundrels like those international art thieves would have behaved more knowledgably and would have taken a Tintoretto hanging next to the stolen Rembrandt, which is worth many millions, instead of the three relatively cheap paintings hanging in other rooms. It is a total mystery why the thief or thieves should have seized these three paintings, while the walls are teeming with works of great artistic value, including small ones that are easy to transport.

Subsequent developments confirm this opinion. On 23 August 1921, the Jenaer Volksblatt reported:

The spectacular paintings theft in the Landesmuseum in Weimar, in which a Rembrandt was one of the paintings stolen, has now been solved, with the confession of the merchant Rost and the locksmith Schumann, now in custody in Weimar, that they committed the robbery. They have hidden the paintings, which are now being sought, somewhere in the vicinity of Weimar.

Finding out why the recovery failed, and whether Rost and Schumann were tried for the theft, has so far resisted my best research efforts. Dr. Köhler must have submitted a report to the Free State of Thüringen that now owned the museum, but it is not to be found. The next thing we know is that three of the stolen paintings – the Rembrandt, the ter Borch and the Tischbein, (the Netscher has disappeared) – turn up on the New York harbor in 1934, folded and badly damaged, in the hands of a German sailor. He made the acquaintance there of a German immigrant to the United States, Leo Ernst, a company plumber for the Frigidaire factory in Dayton, Ohio. Information about what next happened comes from his mouth, and he was a guy who made things up as he went along.

His first attempt to fudge the plain fact that he was in knowing receipt of stolen goods is the zaniest. He went out on a drunken spree with two German sailors who tried to sell him the paintings, he said, which he refused to buy. He passed out and when he came to his wallet was gone and the paintings had been left behind. In stages he eventually owned up to a likelier tale: that after being asked $10,000 for them he paid $2,000, took them back to Dayton and put them in the attic.

One diversionary tactic Leo Ernst liked to employ was to cite the dire circumstances of German history as a motive for his punishable behavior. He later told the authorities that the paintings had been stolen by looting German soldiers in the chaos following the Great War, suggesting that he was somehow rescuing them. Then he reported that he bought the paintings because the sailor was afraid to take them back to Germany out of fear that the art-stealing Nazis would seize them. This frames Ernst as some kind of outwitter of the Nazis. Not only the sailor but Leo himself, he said, was terrified of the Nazi demon. In 1946 the Dayton Herald reported, on his information: “When he learned the value of the paintings, he was ‘scared to death.’ He thought his mother and father, who still live in Germany, would be harmed.”

In 1937 Leo married a woman more sensible than he who was taking classes at the Dayton Art Museum and thought that the paintings might be valuable. The story he and she later told, after the Second World War, is that they researched the paintings for eight years without being able to place them and that they were told time and again that they were worthless. This is difficult – no, impossible – to credit with regard to the Rembrandt, since in 1937 an inexpensive and authoritative English edition was published of Abraham Bredius’s catalogue of Rembrandt paintings, where the Ernsts could have – and I am sure did – see this page.

Abraham Bredius, The paintings of Rembrandt, Vienna (The Phaidon Press) and New York (Oxford University Press) [1937]
35. Self-portrait. 1643. Weimar, Museum (Canvas 61 x 48)
Stolen on April 18, 1922, and not yet recovered.

Concerning the erroneous date of the theft in the caption I have a theory. The editor wrote it down from memory, without checking it against the source as he should have. Bredius’s helper on the catalogue was Horst Gerson, and I’m afraid it might have been his fault. The error was not detected until the 1970s, and sometimes continues to turn up. For the latter-day continuation of this falsity, which has even been enshrined in an international treaty, I am partly to blame. In 1968 I was Horst Gerson’s assistant in his book on Rembrandt’s paintings, published by Meulenhoff International. While the Weimar painting is not included there, it was taken up in Gerson’s new edition of Bredius, with Phaidon, which came out in 1969. I helped with the editing of that volume and I too did not check the sources for the date of the theft. Let that be a lesson to us all, especially me.

At this point I am not going to reveal what the FBI and the Office of Alien Property did in 1946 and 1947 in Dayton, Ohio, Washington and New York, or reactions in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Wilhelm Köhler re-enters the scene, nor what ensued in 1966 and 1967 in the U.S. Congress and the West German government, and how it was that the return of the paintings to Germany followed on a specific order of President Lyndon B. Johnson. For that you will have to buy the book when it comes out.

What I will tell is how the Rembrandt returned to private hands after having been vested by the U.S. government under the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917. (A slight leak.) In 1921, at the time of the theft, it was uncertain who owned the Rembrandt. It had been given on loan to the Weimar museum in 1909 by Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach to the Grossherzogliche Museum, the Grand Ducal Museum. In November 1918 the grand duchy was disbanded in a bloodless revolution, the family left Weimar and the museum was taken over by the new government of Thüringen. In a series of negotiations between Thüringen and the grand ducal family, the legal transfer of nearly all of the art in the museum was arranged. The Rembrandt was not mentioned in these agreements. Why? The lawyers for opposing sides in a series of court cases half a century later offered competing theories. The lawyers for the West German government claimed that the only reason it was not transferred was because it was not there, having been stolen. Had it still been in the museum, it too would have stayed there. The attorneys for the grand ducal heiress had another explanation. The painting had been bequeathed to her heirs by Grand Duchess Sophie, the daughter of King Willem II of the Netherlands. In her testament of March 1895 she stipulated “emphatically that all art objects that I bequeath to my husband are to remain private property that therefore may never judicially be incorporated into public collections.” After years of court proceedings, this argument carried the day. Sophie’s attitude she inherited from her father, who built an art collection of his own, to which the Rembrandt had belonged, in competition with the Dutch public museums, which he felt had no right to exist.

Today, 10 April 2021, were it not for the miserable virus, I would be in Weimar, at the opening of an exhibition I have penned on the history and critical reception of the painting. The locked-down museum and I have been forced to tell ourselves that the exact date does not matter that much, and that the public will be as interested next year as this. I hope we’re right, but still it’s a pity.

© Gary Schwartz 2021. Published on the Schwartzlist on 10 April 2021.

Many thanks to all those who attended the zoom lecture on Rembrandt’s orient that I gave on Wednesday the 7th for the Société Européenne de Culture Nederland. It was lovely seeing the faces and names of so many of you. (There were a lot more Schwartzlist subscribers in the audience than SEC members.) If you missed it, you can watch it here, in all its technical slip-ups, with the Q&A at the end. Click on Full screen in the lower right and Play in the middle. With thanks to Antje von Graevenitz and Peter van Emde Boas.


Loekie and I have now been double-Pfizerd and are feeling invincible.

To my great satisfaction, the esteemed journal The Conradian has published for the members of the Joseph Conrad Society my column of 4 January 2003, for which I have until now been unable to attract the attention it deserves. Do see the Society’s website.

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2 thoughts on “394 The Rembrandt theft of a hundred years ago today”

  1. The newspaper account has a (?) after the ter Borch attribution. In your reproduction of the four paintings there is a (?) after the Netscher. Is there some art historical revisionism you could bring us up to date on?
    Look forward to adding this book to my Schwartz collection.

    1. Actually, the attributions of all four paintings have been or about to be doubted. The Rembrandt was turned into a maybe Ferdinand Bol by Horst Gerson and Ernst van de Wetering. I disagree strongly, and in the book present arguments for accepting that the painting is what it looks like – a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The ter Borch did not make it into Sturla Gudlaugsson’s catalogue, or the Netscher – which has not been seen since 1921 – into that of Marjorie Wieseman. The painting I illustrate has the elements of the Constantijn Netscher described, but on the website of the RKD it is called “Manner of Constantijn Netscher.” That’s why I put a question mark after it. And I hear from the Weimar museum that they doubt whether the Tischbein is by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm. All of this is going into an exhibition in Weimar next year, so keep tuned.

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